LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

The cult of Cult Zeros

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From Oxford United to Romario, via Great Yarmouth and Puerto Rico.

If you’re a fan of an international super club, you have it easy. You can enjoy global broadcasts of every match, social media-driven mega content boomed straight to your phone, and a full range of officially branded, ambitiously priced kits conspicuously plastered with the name and logo of your favourite betting company.

But what if your tastes a little bit more, parochial, shall we say? What if your hero isn’t the latest Ballon d’Or winner, but the guy who scored the goal that sent hated rivals Chesterfield down on the final day of the 1997-98 season? Well, then it’s goodbye megastore, hello Cult Zeros, a homegrown T-shirt business started on a Dean Saunders-inspired whim.

Libero Guide correspondent Jonathan Bennett speaks to founder Paul Couling about alternative merch, South-American superstars and why Great Yarmouth has one of the best football stadiums in the world.

Programme Seller/Cult Zeros

After spotting a website that sold a range of T-shirts featuring players of the calibre of Pelé, Zico and Maradona, Fulham fan Paul immediately knew what he wanted to get his best friend for his birthday: a Dean Saunders T-shirt in Oxford United colours. Needless to say, there was no such thing in existence. Instead, Paul headed to a local T-shirt printing shop instead.

“I did the graphics myself. I wanted yellow and blue, of course, but they told me it wasn’t possible – they could only do certain colours. It also cost about £25 – far from cheap at the time. My friend loved the T-shirt, though, and told me it could be a great business idea.”

Within weeks, they were up and running. “We only put about two grand in to start with, so we didn’t have to re-mortgage the house or anything. The first T-shirt we sold was Simon Morgan, after I posted in the Fulham message board. Then the idea really took after we put ads in When Saturday Comes and Total Football.”

As the orders flooded in, Paul set to work ensuring they were able to represent every single team from The 92, before later adding some non-league clubs and a few international teams. “We’ve always had a lot of orders from fans of lower-league clubs. Often it’s related to a specific game or event. Shrewsbury Town fans, for example, asked me to do a T-shirt bearing the legend, Mickey Brown sent Chester down, in tribute to their great escape in the 1999-2000 season.”

Futbolita and Romario/Cult Zeros

The company soon attracted the attention of people inside the game, too. “We’ve had quite a few players involved over the years. We did some work with Futbolita (Ash Hashim, a Singaporean sport journalist and TV personality), who handed Romario one of our T-shirts during an interview. We also did one for Marco Lugris, a Puerto Rican international who scored their first-ever World Cup goal. His son asked me to make one for his dad’s 60th birthday. He’s just put another order in for Christmas, in fact.” 

The families of Phil Parkes and Johny Metgod made similar requests, the roly-poly goalie Wayne Shaw featured on BBC News in his very own Cult Zeros T-shirt, and other legends have also shown their appreciation, from Jonathan Greening and Mickey Quinn to Dion Dublin and Christopher Wreh. 

Paul prides himself on providing good customer service, and we can safely say that following Fulham through all four divisions has helped him understand the plight of the average supporter: “I always try to remember that anyone who buys something from me has put their faith in the business. And as a football fan, I’ve probably got some tenuous link with all of my customers, like we have a mutual affection for Clive Walker, or we both went to the same game at Darlington 25 years ago”.

Indeed, Paul estimates he has travelled to more than 100 grounds in England over the last 30 years or so, plus a few more on Fulham’s UEFA Cup tour. “The Donbas Stadium in Ukraine was kind of an eye-opener. Like a spaceship had landed in Donetsk. And I hate to admit it, but I was really impressed by the new Spurs stadium – for a modern stadium, it has a lot of character. I’d also say Great Yarmouth is a really nice ground. I think it has the oldest wooden stand in the world.”

NYC post-punk band Certain General/Cult Zeros

With Qatar 2022 approaching, we ask Paul if he expects a boost to his business. “You’d be surprised, but we’re usually a little quieter during the World Cup. I think it’s too tribal in England – people are more likely to go for club over country. Wales fans do seem to buy a lot of T-shirts, but England supporters not so much. Maybe people think you must be a Spurs fan if you wear a Harry Kane T-shirt. It makes people feel uneasy.”

After nearly 20 years in the business, Paul now combines his Cult Zeros work with teaching digital media to the next generation at the Colchester Institute, but remains devoted to his company. “If I did it all again, I’d like to be a bit more clued up on the marketing side of things from the start. But I’ve definitely enjoyed every minute, and I still get the same buzz when I get an order through.”

And on that note, he is off – no-one wants to keep Puerto Rico and Houston Dynamos legend Marco Lugris waiting, after all.

If you like the idea of purchasing your very own custom-made Cult Zeros T-shirt, head to their website and use the promo code EPX4E74S to enjoy a special 10% discount for Libero readers!